The bright side of a lackluster divisional round is a star-studded conference championship weekend, bringing us rematches of two of the regular season's best games. The New England Patriots take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game Sunday, Jan. 20, at 5:40 p.m. in Kansas City, Mo. The New Orleans Saints host the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship game at 2:05 p.m.
We'll start at Arrowhead with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, who might have won Round 1 in Foxborough if it had lasted much longer. Here are five things to know about the games this weekend.
1. How will Belichick adapt?
Despite intercepting Patrick Mahomes twice in the first half of Week 6, the Patriots and Bill Belichick couldn't pin him down. Mahomes eventually caught fire, hitting big shots to Tyreek Hill and creating off-schedule plays outside the pocket to nearly pull the upset.
Belichick's favored mush-rush approach against mobile quarterbacks isn't enough against Mahomes, because he'll win from the pocket when not pressured. However, blitzes can produce scrambling lanes if done without discipline.
To contain AND pressure Mahomes, the Patriots could use more of a tactic that worked in Week 6: Cover-0 with two lurkers. Presnap, they show all-out blitz with one-on-one coverage everywhere (the Cover-0 element), forcing the offensive line to leave one rusher (the furthest outside rusher) unblocked. But at the snap, two inside defenders -- usually Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy -- start to blitz before dropping into underneath zones. O-linemen must honor that initial rush, leaving an outside rusher unblocked. With scramble lanes up the middle jammed, the free rusher forces a quick throw, and the two droppers take away short throws inside.
This concept worked a few times in Week 6 (and also foiled Philip Rivers at times last week). Because pressure comes quickly and inside options are limited, it often forces low-percentage deep balls -- thrown before a target's route is defined -- leading to harmless incompletions.
Using this tactic early might unsettle Mahomes a bit, enticing him to expect pressure and play too fast. Using it often throughout the game would be riskier -- basically Russian roulette, given Hill's speed and Travis Kelce's explosiveness -- but the reward could be more takeaway opportunities.
Either way, Belichick must try something else against Hill, who hounded New England against man and zone from the slot, where he is extremely difficult to bracket. The Patriots occasionally tried a bullseye tactic (jamming him with a front-seven defender) but Hill was too quick. Perhaps Belichick would consider a vice technique (two defenders jamming at the line) in certain situations.
2. Chris Jones must dominate
Jones strip-sacked Tom Brady in just 1.9 seconds in Week 6, firing through a gap created by pulling left guard Joe Thuney on shotgun play-action.
But otherwise, Jones and the Chiefs' pass rush barely breathed on Brady. K.C.'s other sack was one of Brady's worst plays in years -- he held the ball for 10 seconds and was stripped by Breeland Speaks. Speaks famously let Brady out of a sack in the fourth quarter, but the Chiefs didn't even hit him otherwise.
A major reason was a wealth of three-man rushes, one of coordinator Bob Sutton's preferred approaches against New England. Brady likes to deliver quickly, even when not pressured, and dropping eight clogs throwing lanes underneath. It also lets the Chiefs play Cover-1 (man coverage, one deep safety) with not one but two lurkers, who keep eyes on Brady and thwart inside routes.
Jones will get doubled, maybe even tripled on occasion, but he's powerful enough to push through two men at times. He doesn't necessarily have to get free for sacks and hits, as long as he can get push through the middle to force Brady off the spot.
3. Will Reid use the halfback seam again?
Remember Kareem Hunt's 78-yard touchdown in the 2017 season opener, a seam route from the backfield that other teams (including the Patriots and Rams) quickly copied?
Andy Reid ran a variation of the same concept on the first drive in Week 6 this year. Hunt came wide open behind Hightower, but Mahomes missed the throw, leading to a field goal instead of a 26-yard touchdown.
Hunt is gone, but Damien Williams (or Spencer Ware, if he plays) is certainly capable of making the play. Will Reid dress it up differently and run it yet again? Will the Patriots be prepared to sniff it out?
Given how much attention Hill and Kelce draw, it's not hard to imagine it working a third time.
4. How Aqib Talib changes Rams' D
Nobody's going to shut down Michael Thomas one-on-one, but Marcus Peters was a disaster against him in Week 9 (12 catches, 211 yards, TD).
Talib's presence makes a big difference. An ideal body-type matchup, he's strong in press coverage, quick enough to hang with in-breaking routes and lanky enough to thwart contested catches. The Rams rarely travel their corners (Talib usually plays the left, Peters the right), but Talib tracking Thomas would make sense.
That would still stress Peters, however, because it would leave him on the speedy Ted Ginn. The Rams often bracketed Thomas and Alvin Kamara in the first meeting -- especially in the red zone, but also on some third downs -- which could allow Ginn to exploit Peters deep.
To create time to attack deep, expect the Saints to use six-, seven- and even eight-man protections. They did this regularly in Week 9, often with slow-developing play-action that let tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk block down on Aaron Donald. Despite coming close, Donald was mostly kept in check, but he should be more dangerous with left guard Andrus Peat playing through a broken hand.
5. Can Saints' D win early downs?
Holding up against the run without Sheldon Rankins will be tough, but far from impossible. David Onyemata is nearly as reliable at 3-technique, and the Saints limited the Rams' outside zone in Week 9 by shooting a linebacker into a frontside gap while keeping another backside for the cutback.
We know the Saints must also be sharp against Sean McVay's signature deep designs off play-action, which toy with linebackers' eyes. A.J. Klein struggled with these in the first meeting, which could mean more snaps for Alex Anzalone, a second-year ‘backer who excels in coverage.
But New Orleans must also have a plan when Los Angeles uses tempo with empty formations, a tactic that was deadly in Week 9. Rather than going no-huddle, the Rams would huddle but break from it quickly, lining up in condensed empty sets and snapping the ball immediately. Saints defenders were often late lining up and/or still communicating at the snap, and Jared Goff took advantage.
On 10 such plays, he went 5 for 8 for 102 yards and a touchdown. One incompletion was a gorgeous throw that Tyler Higbee dropped for a would-be 18-yard TD. Another play produced a first down for defensive holding, and another was a 6-yard Goff scramble.
The Saints improved against these looks after halftime, but they must be sharper from the outset Sunday. Goff remains up-and-down when forced to throw on third down, so taking away easy early-down completions is paramount.